This six-track project from Blackpool lass and MA in Songwriting Emma was launched in February to her most loyal fans. She knows the marketing/PR side of music and she’s an example of what an independent act should be doing.
Husbands or Kids is the opener, which packs a mighty punch. It is true to the genre: an enormous backbeat, veiled autobiography, a rhyme of complicated/jaded, wonderful twangin’ guitar solo and anthemic, wide open vocals. Blinded (‘by your fantasy’) is a narration of a girl trapped in the love she has for her beau, and I can’t tell if Emma sympathises or calls her a fool, only that the situation drives her ‘crazy’. Match Made In Hell tells a similar story with a lot of vim and electricity. The lead up to the final chorus is particularly good. The arrangements are terrific, especially for an artist funding the release herself. Merch is available at emmamoore.co.uk.
There are ballads, as there always are. When is the centrepiece here, a cheating song on which Emma wonders when the moment of infidelity occurred. Late to the Table sounds like 11pm at the best bar in town even as it is a psychological drama; the chorus twists and turns, modulating up to E major and adding some fun chords to a tortured vocal performance. Waiting For You is a forlorn tune with great instrumentation and a lyric full of acceptance that an ex’s new belle is far better for him than Emma. The music sounds like teardrops hitting the guitar, which is itself gently weeping. It’s sad.
Thomas Rhett, or TR, is paid to make money for Big Machine, just as Taylor Swift did before him, and she owns loads of houses across the world. The collection was Album of the Week on Radio 2, which means that Big Machine think the 35-54 demographic will go wild for him as well. If he doesn’t play Country2Country in 2022, and have the station air his set live, I will eat a Stetson. It’s all about setting things up, and CMA and Radio 2 are working in tandem to ensure maximum coverage for acts like TR.
Everything powering the career of TR – radio, awards, TV, streaming platforms – is geared towards success. He is country music’s Dua Lipa. He is too big to fail, just as Morgan Wallen is too big to fail, hence the picture of Morgan going fishing with Eric Church. Like Morgan and Eric, TR is bringing out a lot of music this year in the form of Country Again. ‘Side A’ is the first part of the project.
I have a soft spot for the title track even though it is marketing with a melody, and also for the lead single which is basically ‘Stick Me on your Country Playlist’. Want It Again and Growing Up, both of which we have heard, lead off the project: the former is a three-minute movie (written by SIX people) that praises a pair who were ‘technicolor in a black-and-white room’; the latter is a middle of the dirt road reminiscin’ song that mentions ‘Coke and Crown’ in the opening couplet, fake IDs in the third and ‘less Jack in my cup’ in the chorus. He’s a dad with three kids who married his childhood sweetheart and is now making Dad Country, not songs about tailgates falling with FM on the radio (for those who remember TR before he was Dad Country).
Ya Heard made me gasp because it opens with four bars of harmonica and has a toe-tappin’ stomp which underscores reminiscences of house parties and how, after years of plugging away, ‘my face is on a shirt’. It’s about his wife, of course, as most of his songs are. Luke Laird was in the room for Where We Grew Up, a song about fishing holes, manners, Chevys, muddy jeans, sermons, ‘tailgate learnin’ and being proud of one’s hometown. That’s Country Bingo.
TR, of course, had a very rich dad who was a songwriter and performer and Grandpa Rhett co-wrote several of the album’s tracks. ‘Thanks for raising me, Dad, have some points on the songs!’
As with the title track, both track genius Zack Crowell and Ashley Gorley, who has over 50 number ones, helped write Blame It On A Backroad. The brief must have been ‘Make this sound like a Phil Vassar song from 2000’ because it’s three chords and peace of mind. ‘Like a free bird, reverb’ is a great line and there’s even some wild fiddle in the middle of the tune.
Heaven Right Now is an acoustic weepie, a secular prayer. TR mourns a lost friend and references both Johnny Cash and Eric Church’s Sinners Like Me, asking whether the grass is greener up there. It is brilliant (and also a marketing ploy) to bring heaven back into country, after every variation of ‘hey girl let’s go to the riverbank in my truck to have sex’ has been exhausted. ‘Memory Lane goes on forever’ is a good line and I think this will become one of his big songs given the right push.
To The Guys That Date My Girls is essential Dad Country, though Rhett also wrote it, along with an old mate of Thomas’s who gave him the idea for the song and will hopefully buy something nice with the proceeds. ‘Just a friendly reminder…a little free advice’, TR sings, while Jesus pops up in the second verse. The coda is great too as he realises his girls have the potential to be ‘the whole world’ to their partners.
More Time Fishin’ is a peppy song where TR flips the bird to his boss and ‘tryin to make a killin’. This is modern country music, sonically, even as it’s basically Take This Job And Shove It. Put It On Ice was written with Hardy, the man whom Grady Smith says ‘hacked bro-country’ and who takes a fab second verse that namechecks Tom Petty. The delivery of the title crams four syllables into four semiquavers and the chorus is, as with every Hardy song, hugely melodic. I hope there’s a bluegrass or hoedown version of this song, because the arrangement doesn’t do it justice.
TR told Holler Country, in a chat full of someone who reads self-help books, that being country is ‘feeling of wanting to live simpler’. Will the 25-54 demographic go for these ‘simpler’ tunes? I think so. TR sells the idea of going fishing or drinking like the best contemporary star, Luke Combs.
For all the marketing of TR as Dad Country, the songs need to be good and these are by a mile the best of his career. His last album was ruined by the pandemic but still contained the same type of tunes. He has nonetheless stopped working with Julian Bunetta, John Ryan and Ryan Tedder and gone big on country. His fans will love it and it’ll bring in more fans. Expect to hear a lot of Side A, and I am sure plenty of Side B when it arrives in the fall, in Europe next year, perhaps in early March in Greenwich.
I don’t think he lays down with his girl at any point on Side A; maybe that’s what we will here on the second half of this tremendous project. Scott Borchetta does it again.
Priscilla has been plugging away for years – she put out an EP in 2017 – but the pair of PMS and Thick Thighs (‘extra fries over exercise’) are 100% Lizzo and 100% Meghan Trainor. The heartache ballad Just About Over You was the song that got her a record deal with Mercury Nashville and she includes it with five more tracks on a self-titled EP. The second single was I Bet You Wanna Know, where Priscilla asks why her ex wants her back: she’s not telling.
Wish You Were The Whiskey is pop-rock rather than country, and it’s a song that reminds me of 200 other songs which compare people to drinks. It sounds an awful lot like Just About Over You, while Heels In Hand thunders with drums and guitars which made Taylor Swift a megastar in 2008. Bad Part of Good is about the conflict between moving on and a one-night stand (or the last kisses of a relationship that has burned out), set to a musical backing that is almost identical to Just About Over You and Heels In Hand. No need to change the formula when it got you a record deal.
Sad Girls Do Sad Things sees Priscilla going death metal…Nope, it’s an acoustic ballad centring on the line ‘this ain’t who I wanna be’. The EP seems targeted at young women between 18 and 34 who have been dumped. I hope Priscilla makes some money. In Nashville, it is the song that matters but will people still be singing Just About Over You in 2030?
Jackson Dean EP
The day that Big Machine pushed out the first part of Thomas Rhett’s new project, Maryland’s Jackson Dean (NOT the TikTok star of the same name!) has released a self-titled five-song EP produced by Eric Church’s pal Luke Dick, who is a hard rocker with a notable influence on country. The cover of the EP makes me think of Johnnie Jackson’s character in the TV show Nashville, whose name I almost had to look up: Avery Barkley.
With the music, I expected rockin’ guitars and bluesy wails. On the former, I wasn’t let down by Don’t Come Lookin, a song about getting on the road. Fearless showcases the latter in the form of a song of fidelity (‘you’re holding all the keys’). Love You Anymore foregrounds the vocal while Jackson tries to ‘get the taste of you out of my mouth’ over some electric guitar. If anything, it is understated.
Don’t Take Much adds some banjo and handclaps to a lyric about trees and sunshine and ‘liquor in my coffee cup’ because ‘it don’t take much to have it all’. It’s the type of country song Justin Moore is doing with his song We Didn’t Have Much but this feels more real and earthy, more rural and not ‘city boy singing about how he used to be country’. Wings, with its dropped guitar tuning, sounds like a Luke Dick song from the first bar: yearning, mention of angels, a drum sound like a desert wind, freedom, memories, a whammy-bar guitar line, almost a sample of Tin Man by Miranda Lambert. It’s a winner.
Kudos to Big Machine for finding a great voice, as they’ve done with Heath Sanders, to funnel some of the Thomas Rhett money into. I never thought I’d see Luke Dick take some of that money; he is best known for working with Eric Church and Miranda Lambert. He once made a movie about growing up in a strip club! Fellow Marylanders Brothers Osborne are kinfolk.
Scott Borchetta does it again. Again. I hope people don’t miss this one.
The Pistol Annie produced this 31-minute LP along with Gena Johnson, who is a woman and has worked on records by Isbell and Prine. It comes out, as the records of Prine did and Isbell’s do, through Thirty Tigers, which means Ashley is not beholden to a major label, only to herself. She wrote a note on her social media page about how she is a vessel through which the Holy Spirit can shine.
Niko Moon was in the room for the Tarantinoesque first single Drive, which Ashley told Dan Wharton on Your Life is a Song was written on her birthday. In a Holler Country interview I found out that her grandpa’s cousin married June Carter; I also like Jof Owen’s take on Rosegold as ‘CHVRCHES playing the Grand Ole Opry’, which is especially clear on the syncopated guitar line of opening track Siren. Layers of Ashleys sing over a programmed shuffle that reminds me of Massive Attack’s Teardrop. It’s a long way from The Blade, an underrated masterpiece she made with Vince Gill. (She has a credit on the Travis Tritt album out next week too, so she’s still got one foot in country.)
Fans of Kacey Musgraves will enjoy the sonic textures and sweet melodies of Silk and the elegant waltz See. ‘Wake up, wake up!’ is the opening line of Flying, which opens Side B. It was written with another underrated member of the songwriting community, Nicolle Galyon. The New Me closes the album and was written with Brett James, the man who discovered Ashley and to whom she is indebted for so much.
Gold is driven by fingersnaps and a naked vocal singing about love and stuff, with the Midas touch, rock’n’roll record and California sunshine standing as similes for her beloved. I Mean It also includes some tender chords and, as with Gold and The New Me, Ashley could have stuck a pedal steel and fiddle on it, but the production choice makes it fit with Lana del Rey or Ariana Grande. Ditto Til It Breaks, which focuses on how a heart ‘doesn’t come together til it breaks’, which is 100% a country lyric and is crying out for a less bluesy arrangement, even though it is still the LP’s masterpiece in its current form. Just because there isn’t a mandolin, doesn’t mean you can’t call it country music.
In fact, as with all Artists with a capital A, Ashley Monroe is her own genre. This is an album to lean into, not away from, in music streaming parlance. Having seen her when she was last in the UK, I can’t wait to catch her again.
Ronnie Milsap – A Better Word For Love
Ronnie Milsap started having hits 50 years ago and is still very much kicking at 78 years old. His new album A Better Word for Love comes on Black River Records, which houses Kelsea Ballerini. It’s full of tracks that have never made any records and the title track sounds like an old Ronnie Milsap song, with the voice dominating over some very frothy acoustic guitars. It is a proper song, as is Now, full of strings upon pedal steel upon backing vocals upon glorious chord shifts to soundtrack some classic Nashville heartache.
The late Jim Weatherly co-wrote Wild Honey (‘sweet as sweet can be’) and closing track Too Bad For My Own Good, on which Ronnie is ‘losing sleep’ through lusting after a lady, ‘addicted to the thrill of your kiss’. There is a saxophone solo, to help us remember Ronnie’s superb run of hits between 1974 and 1991, 35 of which were number ones. I only know a few of them so I really need to brush up on my Ronnie. I suggest that Country2Country book him for the Legends slot.
Scratch golfer Vince Gill helps him out on Big Bertha, a song about a ‘golf club [which] always sets me free’ written by Carl Perkins that is a fine honky-tonker which kicks off the set of ten tunes. Fireworks sounds like a Ringo Starr song, all about kisses and the 4th of July set to a massive drum beat and a horn riff, with a bonus fat solo in the middle of it.
The harmonies on Almost Mine are divine, matching the antiphonal piano lines in the song that answer his vocals. Both Fool and This Side of Heaven (‘Dreams can come true’) are classic songs, as is the live version of Civil War: ‘The state of our union is one of confusion.’ I don’t know why Ronnie isn’t spoken of in the same breath as Leon Russell or Elton John but I suspect it’s something to do with country musicians sticking to country audiences.
I hope this album takes Ronnie, as far as a 78-year-old can go, into mainstream consciousness, perhaps to Greenwich next March.
In 2021, Eric Church, ‘the Chief’, is the closest thing Nashville has to Johnny Cash. ‘I wanted to make people really uncomfortable,’ Eric told a Making Of video about taking his team to a restaurant in North Carolina which they turned into a studio for Jay Joyce to work his magic. ‘It put creativity in the driving seat’, recording a song the day it was written, which broke the silos between songwriter, musician and production. With so many songs to listen through, he was able to become a fan, enjoying the song afresh.
The set opens with the 100-percenter Heart on Fire; that’s music and lyrics by Eric Church. Why has he put this as side one track one? Maybe to prove he can do it alone, maybe to put the spotlight on him as the curtains are pulled back. It’s a three-chord boogie which namechecks Elvis and sounds like joy, and also a bar band.
The first studio recording that we heard from the project was Stick That In Your Country Song, which is one of Eric’s moodier songs and even finds room for support for overworked, underpaid teachers. Once again he refers to speakers in a car, which seems to be the best place to listen to Eric Church outside of a stadium.
Bunch of Nothing is full of character and groove. It was written with Jeff Hyde, who was in the room for Springsteen, Kill A Word and Record Year. It’s a honkytonker with lines like ‘kick Saturday in the ass’ as Eric encourages a friend to have fun. The best moment is when he sings ‘Come on Jo!’ which reminds me that a key part of Eric’s sound is the foregrounded backing vocalist Joanne Cotton. A Julliard graduate, classical music’s loss is rock’n’roll’s gain.
Never Break Heart (‘It’s OK to cry but don’t never break heart’) was written with Luke Dick. It’s gentle country-rock with some sprinklings of piano about love and stuff (‘Draw a line in the sand…pull tight on a slack heart’) and also music: ‘Legs are made for dances’. The extended outro allows time for reflection, which helps slow the pace before the ballad Crazyland.
Both that track and People Break are Luke Laird co-writes (Luke helped Eric write Drink In My Hand, his first number one): the former is a tale of barflies and regret, with blokes ‘givin’ up on their last give-a-damn’. The arrangement is gorgeous, starting and ending as an acoustic number, with a great second half. People Break is a gentle acoustic tune sung beautifully and mournfully by Eric, who is at ‘a spot where I wonder where you are…a broken heartland’, which is a stunning lyric.
Heart of the Night has a fabulous chorus, while the song changes both key and time signature for the middle eight. Russian Roulette is about listening to the radio while going cross country, ‘lead foot in a steel toe’ on the accelerator of a Chevrolet and, quoting himself, says how ‘I need a melody without a memory’, the anti-Springsteen. The music builds around him, while his voice is phased and ‘boxed in’ for a few bars. It’s a convincing bit of rock’n’roll music that can sit beside Give Me Back My Hometown in a set.
Love Shine Down is driven by a guiro, that percussion instrument where you run a drumstick across some grooves, while the lyric creates a sense of sitting by the beach: ‘Message in a bottle by the sea/ An SOS from this SOB’. The production is radio-friendly and Eric is preaching fidelity from his ‘sinner’s heart’, ‘done with not doing you right’.
Eric is so far ahead of so many artists in town and each track is a synthesis of songwriter, production and arrangement. The Soul disc features my three favourite of the dozen or so pre-released songs: future classic Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones, the punchy Bad Mother Trucker, the funky loop- and falsetto-led Break It Kind of Guy and the radio smash Hell of a View. Each showcases a different side of the Eric Church Experience, respectively stool-sitting songwriter, rock’n’roll bluesman, funkateer and radio-friendly unit shifter.
The disc begins with the gentle Rock & Roll Found Me, a track which contains all four Church elements in four minutes. The song ambles along instead of banging and crashing like a lot of tracks in his catalogue. Joanne Cotton again gives good value while Eric rambles on about all the things he used to be before ‘a black man’s guitar’ appears and Ode to Billie Joe is given a generous quote. Both songs are in D major, so maybe that set the writers off and caused them to quote it.
The other brand new tracks which have been held back until release date include the acoustic mood-setter and 100%-er Jenny. Most couplets contain the name Jenny, testament to how much Eric needs the lady: ‘Gotta get out, gotta get gone’ he begs, like the desperate man from his 2018 album, which Heart & Soul betters. As things stand Mr Misunderstood has more hits per pound, but not one of the 18 tracks on the set is a dud.
Look Good and You Know It opens like an old Muscle Shoals song before becoming a pop song set to a bass riff. It’s a neat homage that’ll make you click your fingers, much like the Stapleton song You Should Probably Leave. Where I Wanna Be is in the same metier, opening with some caterwauling guitar and Eric attracted to his beloved ‘like a moth to a flame’. It’s a list of situations that prove his fidelity, and in places it sounds like Mick’n’Keef, probably on purpose; the best part is the abrupt finish, which is left in rather than opting to fade out. Eric’s wife will dig these songs and, if you have one, yours will too.
Bright Side Girl opens with some pronounced plucking before Eric pops up with lyrics about wanting the sky to fall but, as always, love can make things better. Check out the use of one particular chord, the VII chord that makes its presence felt; you’ll know it when you hear it as it seems odd and out of place in a song about how lovely a lady can be. The arrangement is fascinating too, with some power chords in the middle eight.
Eric Church remains a serious artist, able to follow a six-disc live set with a relatively pared-back two-CD-and-vinyl set. Every Church Choir member will have a favourite tune: mine are Lynyrd Skynyrd Jones, Hell of a View, Crazyland and Love Shine Down, which are all very poppy. There isn’t a great deal of ‘heavy’ on this set, which often turns me off Eric’s stuff, but he’s a master of melody and performance.
Eric does justice to the music of his heroes and I am sure he’s looking at coming back to the UK in 2022. I’ll be there with jeans on.
These four tracks are BK from Florida Georgia Line’s first attempt to unshackle himself from Tyler ‘Yeah Baby!’ Hubbard, who is the visible, audible figure of the band, the Ronnie to BK’s Kix, the Shay to BK’s Dan, the Harry Styles to BK’s Louis Tomlinson.
Over fully eleven minutes of music, BK sets out his style of music. Beach Cowboy has a suitably sandy sonic bed and lyrics about hanging his hat and ‘yippie-yo kai-yay, it’s your boy BK’. This must be his image, complete with a ‘lassoed margarita’. I like it. Party On The Beach, written with Canaan Smith, is a little too close to Beer Can’t Fix by Thomas Rhett for my liking but it’s aurally pleasant and contains a great word ‘guaran-damn-tee’.
Born in Ormond Beach, Florida, BK was literally Made By The Water, which is a song that is driven by an acoustic guitar riff and mentions hammocks and shade trees in the first couplet. It goes on to namecheck Bob Marley. It is 100% Jake Owen and is another hit from Randy Montana’s pen.
Sunday Service in the Sand is an accurate description of the lyric: BK ‘can’t help but raise my hands’ at the view ‘on a tailgate pew’. You see, God appears at the edge of the water too! A full album of this sort of Luke Bryan-Jake Owen stuff would be welcome. BK is a guy who knows how to market himself, so there’s a music video for all four songs on the EP.
Justin Moore – Straight Outta The Country
Justin was country before his labelmate Thomas Rhett was Country Again. The week before the main Big Machine cash cow puts out a project, Justin is allowed to get Straight Outta The Country with an EP. We Didn’t Have Much is racing up the radio airplay charts to support its release, and the song is represented by a band and an acoustic version. It’s basically Meanwhile Back At Mama’s crossed with The House That Built Me, which means it’ll be a number one some time in early summer.
Elsewhere, the Rhett Akins co-write Hearing Things (‘that are calling me home’) lists rural signposts in a chorus that he must have written 200 times before. Justin is assailed by static on the radio, tyres on gravel, the sway of pine trees in the wind and water on the riverbank. It’s country for sure. Rhett was also in the room for the breakup ballad You Keep Getting Me Drunk (‘Your kiss ain’t here to get me high’), which has an uncredited female vocalist whose name I would love to know.
Justin co-wrote She Ain’t Mine No More, a heartbreak song with some luscious chords and pedal steel, and More Than Me, which is a Thomas Rhett-type acoustic lullaby about hope and love and fatherhood. There is a track on TR’s new album, out next week, called To The Guys Who Date My Daughters; it just looks like a marketing ploy when two Big Machine acts are doing it.
Consecutive Days Alive is a nice spin on those signs at construction sites that celebrate a lack of accidents. It sounds like a Brad Paisley or Luke Combs song, since the hook is that by living another day Justin has broken his ‘record’.
Fortunately the EP’s title track is traditional muscular rockin’ country that sounds like a beer commercial. Hardy co-wrote it. I’ve stumbled upon a Facebook group called Oddly Specific Playlists and I would be delighted to organise a whole album of this type of ‘Here’s to the Workin’ Man’ country song: Luke Combs has a few, Aldean has one or two. This just sounds like pastiche, especially the three bars of spoken word guff in the middle.
Jameson Rodgers – In It For The Money EP
You know Cole Swindell? Jameson Rodgers is the same product. In 2018 he first released Some Girls, a song co-written by Hardy a long time ago that Jameson long coveted. It became his first number one and means he must follow it up with more songs. In the modern way it isn’t an album but an EP/mini-album. Current smash Cold Beer Calling My Name is three chords and the Combs (Luke Combs) and the song Good Dogs, debuted at the Opry, is three chords and the dog. Do you remember how many chords Some Girls has? I don’t make the rules, I just notice them.
The EP’s title track is Jameson’s life in a song, full of paying rent, carrying a guitar, getting ‘this far’ and playing songs for big crowds rather than the riches and rewards. Instead of I-VI-IV or VI-IV-I it’s grounded by a chorus with I-VII-IV and it sounds very contemporary. Rolling Rock Rolling Stones is a tribute to Mick’n’Keef, and I recommend a shot (rather than a sip of beer) every time a Stones hit (Start Me Up, Honky Tonk Woman, You Can’t Always Get What You Want) is namechecked. It sounds like a commercial or a songwriting exercise rather than a song. It’s driven by two chords rather than three, so it’s different from the four songs that come before it.
The two that follow are both ballads. When You Think of Mississippi (Jameson’s from that state) is a reminiscin’ ballad that every new artist writes which here rhymes ‘magnolia’ with ‘let me hold ya’. Desert is a piece of country philosophy that every new artist writes which here notes that ‘the cold and the rain and the pain don’t last forever’ and you need the lows to appreciate the highs. It’ll be a ‘serious moment’ of a Jameson Rodgers set and it’s the best song of a varied set where the songs sometimes have four chords.
Over six tracks, Kentucky-raised Elvie Shane announces himself as a cross between Kip Moore and Eric Church, with even bigger drums. My Boy has become a little engine that could, a song about stepfatherhood that has a gentle groove and a strong message: Elvie’s life in a song. After six months on radio it is now in the Top 30, with an audience of over 3.6m listeners and over 1600 weekly plays on big stations, alongside songs by Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean and Dylan Scott. He’s better than all three of them, I think.
There’s plenty of Broadway-style rockin’ out to the title track, with some na-na-nas adding a singalongability. The song is a statement of intent, something to drink to thanks to the ‘here’s to’ lyric. Sundress, however, is a ballad in the Kip or Aldean vein about a girl and a car and sneaking off for some fun, while My Mississippi opens with a quick blast of organ before Elvie sings the praises of the eponymous river: ‘I know a girl a lot like you’ switches the narrative to love being like a river. It’s a smart song set to three familiar chords.
Keep On Strummin’ has him ‘running down a dream’ and will ‘hit the ground runnin’ while he plays his guitar. There’s a nice nod to Sixteenth Avenue, both the street and the song which details songwriters coming to town with a guitar and a dream. We get loads of references to famous country songs – Where I Come From, Fortunate Son, Born To Run – and Elvie is working in the tradition of Tom Petty, Alan Jackson, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bruce Springsteen. I gotta have more cowbell! Kip Moore fans will find much to enjoy and if I heard this in a Broadway bar, I would pop a five-dollar bill in the jar.
Sundays In The South majors on twang before listing Southern images: NASCAR, potholes, church bells and spiritual songs like I’ll Fly Away and Amazing Grace. The Cadillac Three do this sort of thing and it’s credit to Elvie that this can stand alongside it.
It is becoming a familiar way to launch a new artist to the mainstream. Remember Hardy’s Hixtape, where he roped in loads of acts, and the recent EP from Jimmie Allen, Bettie James? The same trick is pulled here. I wonder what Lathan thinks as an act that the only way he can be palatable to a new audience is to lumber him with seven other artists. This is the country equivalent of putting Sam Smith on a Disclosure song or Tom Grennan or (seriously) an uncredited Yola on a Chase & Status tune.
Following five independent EPs, Colombia Nashville have taken the chance on Lathan, given that there needs to be black faces in country music on pain of irrelevance. I recently read a piece that opened with a line about Nashville being a ten-year town because you can look at the top 40 exactly ten years before and see what Nashville is doing ten years hence. This is why In His Hands, a song featuring Lauren Alaina, sounds like BOB and Hayley from Paramore singing about Airplanes.
We’ve heard the forgettable Tyler Hubbard collaboration My Way, and the anaemic Matt Stell duet Over Yonder is similarly blah. Will people really buy this sort of music rather than listen to Post Malone or Drake? Or even Kane Brown, who is missing from this set of seven very white acts. Or Jimmie Allen, who shares a manager with Lathan (Ash Bowers).
RaeLynn is on Roots, which is caught between hiphop and rock. I want more guitars and more drums, although Lathan’s rap is convincing and full of praise for his lady, a girl ‘with some roots raised in a small town’, as RaeLynn sings. All over this project is the ‘Hey! Hey!’ backbeat, processed tinny drums and the ad-libbed intros, giving it a dull uniformity when listened to all at once.
Lauren and Dustin Lynch were on Hardy’s project and return for Lathan’s. Way Out Here is the type of song Dustin has written before, and he sings about how people in rural areas ‘work a little harder…I found me out here with you’. Russell Dickerson sings the chorus on Gotta Be God, which comes ‘from the soul’ but is in no way soulful. High Valley are also Christians and the brothers pop up on Runaway Train. God gets a mention in the first verse and the chorus has a nagging melody too, but the production slathers all the vocals in gloop. I hope to hear some live versions which promote a messy project.
I know Lathan is a Christian and this is an interesting attempt at making the Lord less churchy. Perhaps a Sunday service would be improved by a Lathan Warlick set. The song My Dawgs, which Lathan has all to himself, is about love and loyalty. Going by streams, his song Tellem That Im Comin (sic) is his biggest by far, even though it’s barely a song, just a load of platitudes over a minimal beat and some pitch-shifted vocals. Also popular is We’ll Get Through, which opens with a line about falling and getting back up sung over some rain FX.
I’m not sure what Colombia are trying to do but I feel very pessimistic about Lathan Warlick’s place in the country marketplace. Yet it amplifies the message and nobody else is doing this sort of thing, a kind of red dirt trap.
Country in the UK is virtually a series of versions on a theme of Taylor Swift. There are so many gals with guitars writing diary entry lyrics about boys and love and stuff. Louise Parker is one of the stronger ones and her debut LP reaches the ears of her many fans. Belated congratulations to her manager Nick Cantwell, whose Belles & Gals project has been spotlighting ladies in UK country for five years now.
‘A real labour of love’ is how Louise describes the LP, which you can order at louiseparkermusic.com. It collects the three singles she has released – Lie To Me (‘tell me I’m beautiful’), the terrific Just Friends and the Joey Clarkson duet If You Want Me To – with an acoustic version of songwriters’ anthem I’m Moving To Nashville. We get breadcrumbs and magic beans and hopes and dreams over mellifluous acoustic guitar.
Rear View Mirror is a smart opening, one of those gutsy, ballsy songs sung with 100% heart and soul, in the Jade Helliwell/Kezia Gill mould. The song includes a great twangin’ solo and an impressive whoop. She also leaves in an adlib that humanises her. It’s one of four ‘reimagined’ songs which put new spins on old tunes. Paradise begins as a piano ballad that suits its lyric of devotion before Louise shows off her voice over a traditional arrangement.
Elsewhere Should’ve Could’ve Will is a jaunty tune with radio friendly production and a ‘you go girl!’ message and I like both the wistful Story of Love (‘Take my hand…you already have my heart’) and the understated Chances Are, which has hints of organ on it. There is a key change.
Lauren Housley – Girl From The North
Country in the UK can also be ‘indie’ or ‘alternative’. Lauren Housley flies the flag for country in the North-West. Bob Harris has premiered tracks from her album Girl From The North, all of which have been superb.
This Ain’t The Life, in particular, is one of my tracks of the year and is sure to gain loads of plaudits as it’s added to the daytime Radio 2 Playlist. I also caught her performing two Carole King tracks at a tribute evening a few weeks ago, marvelling at the control of her voice.
The album opens with Bless His Soul, which like This Ain’t The Life and What’s Troubling You Child is located in a pop-soul place. Then comes Guaranteed Sunshine, which is proper roots music with great production to match the mood of the song. Sing To Me is a gentle Adult Contemporary Ballad and the first three minutes of Breakdown are almost soft rock, complete with some vocalised la-las in the middle duetting with Thom Dibb’s guitar (Thom is producer too). The last couple of minutes, however, are blissful.
The smart 90-second track Two Lovers Lost In Space resets the mood in a Dusty Springfield style. Lauren’s voice is full of yearning on Why Are We Making It So Hard? and full of reminiscin’ and contemplatin’ on Stay Awake To Dream.
The final track We’re Not Backing Down is country-rockin’. Radio 2 listeners whose interest is piqued by This Ain’t The Life will find much to enjoy here, and Lauren’s career trajectory has taken a massive jump.
Parker’s mix of soul, r’n’b, blues and country make him a perfect specimen of Bob Harris Country.
An outrageously good vocalist and guitar player, Parker has steadily built a fanbase which allows him to travel the world. I first heard him via his Truck Song Gospel, from his 2014 debut album. As far as I can tell, Parker (who is still in his mid-20s) releases music on his Okrahoma label in partnership with Thirty Tigers.
Opener opener Rolling (‘with the punches…on a dime…down the highway…the windows down’) has some scatting in the middle of its gentle, purposefully rolling guitar. I also like the charming riff of The Real Thing, while It Was You is a Harry Nilsson-type love song full of chords and tenderness.
That song segues into In Between, which is a folk lament about the moments ‘before and after’ certain happenings. Dammit is almost a character song, with Parker performing the final two minutes in a power-rock wail over chords I and IV, singing about secrets, lies and purposes. This will come to life with a full band in the live setting and is a fun way to end the first side of the album.
Side Two begins with Empty, a track driven by a McCartneyish vocal line, while Passing Through sounds like Macca fronting The Band and Always is a funky retro number which supports the theory that Parker is trying to cram every type of arrangement into one album. I would love to see his record collection.
Being Alive closes the album, a buoyant organ-driven song with echoing drums and a chorus of ‘What more can you ask for?’ The coruscating electric guitar in the middle of the song is the album’s finest moment.
Andrew Beam – Selma By Sundown
The title song of this album is a groovy truckers’ song, which places us in the country. Farmall 53 is similarly rural with ‘long days in the heat’ and some muscular guitars and a snarl in Andrew’s voice. Album opener Country Ain’t Dead sounds like 1994 thanks to its Joe Diffie-ish twang. I liked the slow-burning first single You Should See The Other Guy, which is basically Someone Like You by Adele set to a country-rock groove. Might As Well Dance is a familiar trope of the guy finding a new girl to get over his ex, set to some Paisleyish guitar.
Semalee is a writing exercise dedicated to the technique best summed up by Bo Burnham: ‘You’re incomparable like a….’ Andrew’s vocal and the acoustic strum pattern are both very Eric Church-y.
Black and White is another spin on Ebony & Ivory. The vocals of Byron Addison create a nice harmony or, when solo, counterpoint to Andrew, even if the lyric is a little too earnest for my liking. It is redeemed by a small instrumental section with a plucked banjo.
Inspired by the line ‘A honkytonk life’s for me’, he wrote Three Sheets, which begins with a chorus of yo-hos and continues with some naval gazing. The Beam In Me is a smart title for a rocking tune full of character as Andrew’s trying to pick up a lady as his genes and, indeed, his jeans testify.
I imagine the twosteppin’ of Wadmalaw Saturday Night is the only song in the last 30 years to mention both Stagger Lee and Straight Outta Compton. Six-minute closing track Cajun Wind opens with crickets and frogs to set the scene for a bluesy tune. It’s a fine production and rounds off a decent set of songs.
Here come 18 more tracks which have been interpreted by contemporary artists based on John’s original words. The first set of 16 songs came out in 2018 on the Forever Words collection and they included Gold All Over The Ground, a ballad in June Carter Cash’s honour which Brad Paisley included on his album Love & War (which he is still yet to formally follow up).
The first tranche of new tunes from last October included Elvis Costello’s blistering take on If You Love Me and John Carter Cash’s wife Ana Cristina singing Brand New Pair of Shoes (‘Walking till I lose all my mighty blues’), which is given a New Orleans-type feel.
The second tranche, released just before Christmas, included the bluegrass-tastic The Dogs Are In The Woods, by John McEuen, Clare Bowen and husband Brandon Robert Young harmonising the tender Little Patch of Grass and John’s old mate Marty Stuart interpreting the lyric I’ve Been Around with a Cash-like burr. In February came the third set, Jewel’s rootsy take on Does Anybody Out There Love Me? is terrific, as is the honkytonkin Let It Be Tonight by Trick Pony bassist/singer Ira Dean. The Lumineers bring Pretty Pictures in My Mind to life.
The final set includes five songs, one pairing Ronnie Dunn and Brad Paisley’s band: Ronnie sounds great on Outta Site Tonite, which is almost a homage to Cash, complete with a band who ‘shake the neighbourhood’ and ‘do their thing’. Runaway June performed My Song at the Opry and the studio version sees them go full Dixie Chicks on a sweet tune on which the girls, not John Cash, want to sing a song ‘for you’. Natalie Stovall’s fiddle is gentle and I expect the next Runaway June project will go big on fiddles solo, which is A Good Thing.
Three gents round off the collection. Ruston Kelly adds his wonderful baritone to Dark and Bloody Ground with its lyric about a woman in Kentucky and a man wearing ‘killing shoes’ with a very Rustonish sonic bed. Aaron Lewis, from off of Staind, takes The Third Degree, a murder ballad which begins with gospel handclaps and a worksong chant.
Finally, over eight minutes, Bill Miller offers Tecumseh about ‘an Indian boy born on sacred ground’ whose people were driven away from their ancestral land. ‘The prophet still walks among us’ ends the song. It reminds listeners that Johnny went through a phase where he clung to religion, and even made a documentary film about Jesus and Israel. He was more than just the outlaw who got kicked out of the Opry for bringing a drummer, and the old man who covered that Nine Inch Nails song.
When I heard Rhiannon’s version of She’s Got You at the Grand Ole Opry, I cried. Rhiannon has become a sort of performing time capsule whose music is entirely unclassifiable. She boosted her career by playing an angel in the weird series of Nashville, before which Bob Harris had already latched onto her as a performer both as a solo act and in the bluegrass group Carolina Chocolate Drops, whom he played as far back as 2008 and had in for a session in 2010.
Rhiannon now lives in Ireland when she isn’t on tour. She is signed to Nonesuch Records, whose roster includes Yola, Rodney Crowell, Fleet Foxes, Iron & Wine, kd lang, Nickel Creek and Joni Mitchell, whose music is all as unclassifiable as Rhiannon’s.
They’re Calling Me Home is her second album with her partner Francesco Turrisi and the first since she was awarded an honorary PhD from UNC-Greensboro thanks to her work foregrounding black folk music around the turn of the century; she’s now the Artistic Director of Silkroad, having been a guest curator of the Cambridge Folk Festival. Rhiannon was also profiled in the Daily Telegraph who on their website used the headline: ‘I knew everyone who was black and played the banjo.’ The interviewer said she was ‘the closest thing country music has to a conscience’.
Thus we get music from around the world that would be classified ‘folk’ as well as country, like the pentatonic melody of Avalon, a very old song which she wrote that has been dusted off and brought to record. Francesco picks up the banjo, an unfamiliar instrument, for Si Dolce e’I Tormento, an Italian song from the 1600s which Rhiannon sings with a great deal of control. She adds a hillbilly quaver and a bluesy wail to Oh Death, which you might remember from O Brother Where Art Thou.
Black As Crow has a superlative wind solo from what sounds like a reed flute, which returns on Bully For You (good title) while instrumental piece Niwel Goes To Town and a cappella duet Nenna Nenna are both gorgeous. It’s more World on 3 than Bob Harris Country but it proves my point that Rhiannon is in her own genre.
Along with trad. arr. masterpieces like When I Was In My Prime (‘I flourished like a vine’), I Shall Not Be Moved and Amazing Grace – whose melody she hums over finger-tapped percussion and, for the final verse, alongside a piper – there’s Calling Me Home, a song about ascending to heaven and contemplating mortality. I also love the gentle grooves of Waterbound, with an arrangement matching the lyric of a passage to North Carolina. We need more Rhiannons and Francescos making their own kind of music.
Here’s a quiz question: what links the following set of singers? Javier Colon, Jermaine Paul, Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery, Tessanne Chin, Josh Kaufman, Craig Wayne Boyd, Sawyer Fredericks, Jordan Smith, Alisan Porter, Sundance Head, Chris Blue, Chloe Kohanski, Brynn Cartlli, Chevel Shepherd, Marlyn Jarmon, Jake Hoot, Todd Tilghman and Carter Rubin?
They all won The Voice USA.
Chevel Shepherd is from New Mexico and is only 18. She won Season 15 of The Voice when she was sixteen, singing songs by The Band Perry, George Strait, The Chicks, The Judds, Little Big Town, Loretta Lynn, LeAnn Rimes and Tanya Tucker, as well as Space Cowboy by Kacey Musgraves. After being mentored by Kelly Clarkson, Chevel opened for Maroon 5 in 2019, which must have been a condition of winning it. Her song Broken Hearts charted on the strength of her winning performance. It passed me by completely.
The title track of her seven-track EP Everybody’s Got a Story was written by Shane McAnally, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark. It includes some glorious minor chords and a rocking chug which underscore lyrics about blaming people for your predicaments. Snakes is a story of ‘growing up in the backwoods’ where they don’t just live on the ground.
Southern Boy chugs along happily though the lyric compares guys in the South to those in New York and LA. Chevel wants a ‘back road, take it slow kinda love’ and the chorus is delicious. I listened to it again immediately. Good Boy is a bit more banal, as Chevel coos to her mama that she has found someone to love her.
Just Like The Circus (‘you always leave town’) is another Musgraves-McAnally write, and it makes sense because her voice is the same tone as Kacey’s, and very similar to that of Hailey Whitters. The Letter is a piano-led slowie which opens with a family crying and the doctors trying and someone writing a note (‘Don’t give up right before the miracle’) which is practically a Christian pop song.
Mama Got The Chair is a ballad about Chevel’s mum ‘drinking alone’ which sounds an awful lot like the George Strait song, which makes me think it’s an answer song. Both Danielle Bradbery and Cassadee Pope have had modest success, and I hope Chevel Shepherd joins them.
In the olden days Luke Bryan used to bring out a Spring Break EP every March, back when teenagers listened to his music. Today, in his forties, he is a legacy artist who pops up with Lionel and Katy and Bobby on American Idol. Thus, predictably, he adds tracks to his 2020 album Born Here Live Here Die Here – already packed with four number one hits – to prolong its shelf life. You can read the review of the original record here.
Of the six newies, we were dripfed Country Does – which is another Shane McAnally composition about corn and family and mud and a rhyme of ‘kinfolks with take-it-on-the-chin folks’ – and Drink A Little Whiskey Down, which is Drink A Beer with a different potable.
Waves, written by three chaps including Ryan Hurd, is middle of the dirt road smooch of a song which compares a lady to stars, water and the summer. There’s a patented Michael Carter guitar solo in the middle which woke me up, and the whole point of the song is that it licks you like an ocean spray. Perhaps it was too similar to much of the original release to take its place there last year but it’s a good piece of Adult Contemporary Country.
Up is not a Cardi B cover but a song that uses the word to inspire requests for rain, holding a beer up to the sky where there’s a guy ‘looking down on us’ and, above all, celebrating a ‘way to grow up’. There is a Michael Carter guitar solo in the middle of it.
Bill Dance is a Peach Pickers song: Akins-Bryan-Davidson-Hayslip, the band back together. We get country references – ‘green and tan Plano’, ‘that old sawmill’, ‘zoom black and red flake’ and the good old ‘Muckalee’ – and two mighty chords running throughout the song. It turns out that Bill Dance is a famous host of a fishing show on the Outdoor Channel, ‘a large mouth legend in a Tennessee hat’. The Best of the Peach Pickers is a hell of a catalogue and this one is a worthy addition. Bill himself called it a ‘humbling tribute. For once in my life I’m speechless!’
I can’t believe there hasn’t been a Luke Bryan song called Floatin’ This Creek (‘and taking it slow’). There are shards of harmonica poking out, at which point I realise that these extra tracks is a smart way to release a spring break EP by stealth. Smart Luke. He’s also on TV at the moment so go watch American Idol. Kinda sucks but he gotta make a dollar, to paraphrase this song’s middle eight, although he refers to his character, a construction worker digging a ditch.
The title track of this terrific album is a good place to start: a boogie-rocker about love and stuff where Tim invites us to toast people who defy long odds and ask a girl to dance. Get Em Up is an Aldean-ish invitation for fans to ‘kick it all night’. Bar Band is another song about songs – Marshall Tucker and John Prine get namechecks, as do Spinal Tap with the line ‘up to eleven’ – but the mood is middle of the dirt road rather than hardcore bar band music. There’s a sweet set of closing harmonies which invite us to put our hands up for a second song in a row.
Be A Cowboy is one of four songs on the album written with the great David Lee Murphy and sounds like five Aldean songs rolled into one. It’s enormous and loud and muscular, and is a good counterpoint to the album’s softer songs. River Kids is an acoustic reminiscin’ ballad which paints Tim the teenager hanging out by the river, drinking beer and fishing and doing country stuff. Gone Looks Better (‘on you than it does on me’) is a lovesick ballad that sounds like all the other country ballads of its type, while Tim tries out a bluesy wail on Stronger Than You: ‘There’s rattlesnake venom runnin’ through my veins’ is a good line.
Don’t Wait Up On Me (‘Ruby and Rosalie’) has a snakeskin-booted Tim telling his lady that he’ll be on the road at dawn; it sounds like an old-school groupie song. The protagonist of the fun Cars On Blocks is fresh out of jail ‘way out where the buffalo roam’; over three chords Tim puts across a lot of character and paints a picture of a land of mobile homes and ‘redbone hounds’. Closing power ballad To An End has sprinkles of pedal steel and a lyric full of bowed heads, closed eyes and prayer ‘so I can look her in the eyes again’. It’s the best vocal on an album full of great takes.
This is a mature album with much to enjoy and has less bombast and more soul than Jason Aldean, who by now is a parody of himself. Maybe Broken Bow should allocate Aldean’s resources to Tim.
Brett, who has had 15 Top 10 hits up in Canada, delivers What Is Life, a set of ten tracks and four interstitial monologues featuring his three kids (how cute!). Released on his own label Bak 2 Bak, it’s a personal project which resonates with his fans around the world.
Brett opens the album with a soliloquy which asks the question that gives the album its title. ‘Where’s our world headed? What will become of this life?’ He closes with the rough guitar-and-vocal demo-sounding Kindness, with a dropped guitar tuning. Brett sings about things his kids should take heed of: don’t hate, difference is a good thing and kindness should be ‘contagious’.
In between come nine other possible answers to his question, the first attempt being the single Make A Life, Not A Livin. Money is less important than breathing, as it seems are funky riffs. A nice triple-time ramble called Die To Go Home opens with a town that’s ‘way too quiet’ and makes teenage Brett ‘bored every Saturday night’. But life is about home, looking at farms from an aeroplane and remembering where you’re from: ‘Just like gravity tugging at your soul’ is a very good line that I might steal and hope nobody notices, which Brett sings over a gentle backing.
Everything in the Rearview contains ‘a laundry list of things’ Brett did before he got out of his home town, ‘the bitter and the sweet’. It’s a reminiscin’ song about learning lessons (such is life!!) in years which fly by. Carpe diem is the message, baked in a middle of the dirt road pie. Without is a fun love song which has a list of essential items that people can remove from Brett’s world, even light itself. (Good luck getting enough oxygen from plants that can’t grow because there’s no sun.)
Down To Earth was written with the great Eric Paslay. It’s another carpe diem pop song which celebrates a rural life and getting ‘lost in a neverending sky’ with a lady. ‘The moon is all we need’ is a line from the first verse of Better Bad Idea, where life is about spending time cuddling in private, ‘my hands your hips/ I kiss your lips’; the arrangement is like a hug and a kiss too, with a silky guitar solo in the middle. I don’t know why it sounds very Canadian but it does.
Brad from Old Dominion is one of the writers for Night in the Life (not Day in the Life!), an Old Dominion-ish slice of party music with ‘boys chasing girls chasing stars’. It comes off as a Rascal Flatts tune, with potluck dinners and ties loosened after work and crowd singalongs (of, I imagine, Old Dominion tunes as well as Brett Kissel tunes). As with Better Bad Idea, there’s a brief section where Brett makes love. It sounds like a radio smash, and perhaps life is about enjoying the downtime.
Can you guess what Slidin Your Way is about? It’s about drinking, partying with loud music and getting jiggy, and it’ll sound perfect at Brett’s next gig thanks to its addictive and sticky chorus. Alternatively, From This Day Forward is a piano-and-strings wedding song (‘You give my life a new perspective’), and it’s good to hear devotion rather than sex. Life is about deep emotional connections and being a better person in step with someone else.
The pop-rock pair of Brett Beavers and Jimmy Robbins produced Canaan’s debut album Bronco, from 2015, which featured such hits as Hole In The Bottle and Love You Like That. It served the radio, with lots of bombast and muscle to make it a comfortable fit with all the other blokes on radio at the time. Since then, Canaan has put out six songs including Beer Drinkin Weather and Like You That Way (‘Miranda Lambert crazy’, remember that one?). I don’t know if he put his foot down or read the market, but this is a very contemporary collection of songs which will sound good in between Combs, Pardi and Hardy.
Canaan writes and produces all 12 tracks. We’ve heard half of High Country Sound over the last year or so: the excellent thumping hoedown of Mason Jars & Fireflies, the triple-time breakup jam Colder Than You, the homespun Sweet Virginia (which is a tribute in part to his daughter Virginia) and reminiscin’ song Cabin in the Woods, refuge of the check-shirted mountain man and a place where Canaan had a ball round the fire singing ‘old John Denver’. There is a fiddle solo.
The first couplet of the album includes Canaan remembering a ‘hometown area code’ and the chorus mentions ‘daddy’, beer, heartbreak, red dirt on my boots, gospel truth and roots. It’s basically Dirt by Florida Georgia Line (which is okay as the album comes out on the duo’s Tree Vibez imprint), but with some oddly clear production, with fiddle poking underneath a steady drumbeat.
There’s an early reference to the ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ of Virginia, which makes this a personal track as well as a generic one that can address fans across the South. American Dream is another fiddle-flecked Mumford stomp about love and stuff, complete with a ‘glass of wine’ which is prevalent in a lot of today’s country music. It’s not beer drinkin’ weather any more…
Catch Me If You Can is an FGL and Canaan co-write featuring Brent Cobb, ‘bootleggin rebels’ on the run from the po-po. There’s yet more fiddle and Brent’s vocal is very Hardyish. On Still, Canaan invites his girl – it is very funny that the song begins with the word girl – to go camping in a holler, ‘turn off the phone’ and find a little bit of ‘heaven on Earth’ where the Whippoorwill wakes them. Gosh it is so nice to hear this sort of thing on a country record that isn’t by Luke Bryan and Canaan sells it very well.
Compared to that Like I Ain’t Missin’ You is banal: drinking to get over an ex in a bar listening to George Strait on the jukebox. Fiddle and pedal steel join in, and I can imagine King George giving this a go. George appears again on the final track, Losin Sleep Over A Girl, where we smell the ‘sunflower perfume’ Canaan smelt on a third date to his show. It seems to be his life in a song: ‘We were buying dishes, hanging pictures, setting up forever’ and then by the third verse it’s Canaan’s turn to feed his daughter. I don’t think he’s chasing a trend: I think this is the album Canaan wanted to put into the world as an artist.
Commentator Billy Dukes likes to review albums in one word. High Country Sound is: Grown-up.
From Virginia, Morgan overcame addiction to make her debut LP Reckless. The record is produced by Sadler Vaden, who is a guitarist in Jason Isbell’s band The 400 Unit, and Paul Ebersold, who won a Rock Gospel Album Grammy back in 2004 and is best known for working with corporate rockers 3 Doors Down.
Side A opens with Wilder Days, which sounds like The Wallflowers, and Side B with Last Cigarette. Along with the tremendous title track, both are irresistible pop nuggets which I call ‘Bob Harris Country’: chunky basslines, melodic guitars and a punchy melody. I’m a sucker for melody-driven rock with lots of hooks in the guitar part.
I love the production and arrangement of Matches and Metaphors, which sounds a little like Elle King, and the wedding song Other Side, which has the sort of grit that Ashley McBryde delivers in her songs: ‘You’ve seen the parts of me the world says I should hide’. With different production, Don’t Cry could be Hole-like grunge or Avril Lavigne pop-rock, but it’s catchy like the best songs of both those acts.
Kalie Shorr mixes country confessional and rock attitude but Morgan’s voice is one I like better. She is vulnerable on triple-time song Mend (‘I hope you can mend me’) and on Take Me Away (‘I wanna feel something’). Ernest Hemingway gets a namecheck on closing acoustic ballad Met You, which opens with her ‘numb from a cocktail of pills’ and has her reminiscing on happier times.
When she pleads for her beloved to return, asking him how that ‘northern air’ is on the song of the same name, she adds the detail of the red stain on the ‘white dress that I bought to impress you that night I confessed my truth’. There’s a lot of subtext in the song that will emerge in a live setting too. I’ll be there.
Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers
I saw the long-haired genre-hopper Valerie June perform on the open stage at Latitude one year to an appreciative crowd. Valerie is Americana and will win awards in that category in future, though I am sure she is more concerned about getting her music to as many ears as possible.
I was surprised at how understated the tracks on this album were. Both Colors and Stardust Scattering remind me of Deep Forest’s new age track Sweet Lullaby: drums are soft, the production creates a sonic bed for the horns to emerge. Valerie’s voice wraps around Carla Thomas’s on Call Me A Fool where, like The Highwomen, a unison vocal makes the lines punchier.
Elsewhere, Valerie is at the top of her range on the gentle Fallin’, swoons in the middle of Two Roads, is joined by percussion and many voices on the sweet final minutes of Within You and sings an appropriate sunny melody on Smile. I love the strings added to Why The Bright Stars Glow, which I hope she can replicate in the live sphere.
The album ends with 90 seconds of birdsong and pipes, sending the listener off to dreamland with a goodnight kiss. Valerie will win many more fans, more dreamers, with this album.
Stuart Duncan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile – Not Our First Goat Rodeo
Yo-Yo Ma is a well-known bluegrass cellist(!!) who teams up with fiddler Stuart Duncan, mandolin player Chris Thile and bassist Edgar Meyer on Not Our First Goat Rodeo, which has been nestling inside the bluegrass albums for nine months. It defies categorisation: there are a lot of pentatonic melodies from cello and bass on Your Coffee Is A Disaster; Voila! is great fun thanks to its jaunty melody; and I like the just-right wrongness of the portamento sliding on Every Note a Pearl.
There is some traditional folk on here. Stuart takes the lead on Waltz Whitman and there’s a Nickel Creek flavour to The Trappings. We Were Animals is a vocal-driven tune where Chris’s mandolin marries with Ma’s cello. The virtuosity is the selling point of the album but there’s plenty of melody and harmony to keep the casual listener interested.
Sara Watkins – Under The Pepper Tree
Like bandmate and old mate Chris Thile, Sara Watkins is not defined by the bluegrass music she grew up creating. She opens Under The Pepper Tree with a cover of Pure Imagination, with some glorious tremolando violin at the beginning, which segues seamlessly into The Second Star to the Right, from off of Peter Pan.
Brother Sean, with some clippety-clop strumming, and Chris on the mandolin pop up on Blue Shadows on the Trail, taken from The Three Amigos, which might as well be a Nickel Creek encore. Her voice flutters throughout When You Wish Upon A Star (written in 1939, lest we forget) and Edelweiss is turned into a lullaby featuring future Nickel Creek member, Sara’s daughter.
Mary Poppins inspires the presence of Stay Awake, a literal lullaby, and she bestows a mother’s love on an acoustic version of You’ll Never Walk Alone. At her producer’s suggestion, she ends with lullaby Good Night, a song for Ringo on the self-titled 1968 album by The Beatles. Her take on Moon River, one of the greatest popular songs ever written, is terrific too.
Every song on this collection has a strong melody. At what age, I wonder, do kids who grow up on lullabies start writing to rhythm not to melody? Maybe it’s when they discover girls and the mating rhythm of the backbeat.
I adore Sara’s own Joni Mitchell-ish lullaby Night Singing, with the chorus of ‘I love you’ sticking in the memory. Good old Taylor Goldsmith is on Blanket for a Sail, the Harry Nilsson song, and the waltz La La Lu from Lady and the Tramp is sung to a pizzicato accompaniment where she might be strumming the violin with her thumb. I’d never heard the country song Tumbling Tumbleweeds, on which Sara recruits her friends from trio I’m With Her (including Aoife O’Donovan who appears on the Goat Rodeo album above) and some lush piano.
This is a wonderful set of songs that deserve to be heard. I wonder if Sara will do the sort of ‘mother and baby’ event that cinemas put on, or kid-targeted opera companies.
Barely six months after My Gift, Carrie Underwood follows a festive album with the gospel album which she has spent 15 years waiting to make. There was no doubt that once she’d done all the usual girl-singer stuff – woman scorned, woman in love, woman taking a Louisville Slugger to both headlights – she was going to get to sing to My Savior on an album of 13 tracks. She’ll play them on Facebook on Easter Sunday, with donations to Save The Children, at 11am Nashville time which is 5pm British Summer Time.
Softly and Tenderly, Blessed Assurance and Just As I Am are all tender, acoustic ballads that sound like Temporary Home. Carrie’s voice quivers, mostly over solo piano or strings, in awe of the Lord. We get hymns galore about the Holy Trinity: Great Is Thy Faithfulness is a duet with the Carrie Underwood of gospel, CeCe Winans; I Surrender All (‘to Him I freely give’) goes out to the Lord, Carrie’s biggest fan.
The Old Rugged Cross (‘the emblem of suffering and shame’) make the release topical, since the album will be played by thousands over Easter Week 2021. With acoustic guitar and some gentle backing vocals, this is the type of gospel-pop Whitney Houston may have moved to once she got too old for r’n’b.
One thing that Carrie and David Garcia (or the people funding this release, Capitol Records Nashville) must have known is that we don’t need the church all the way through. Thus Nothing but the Blood of Jesus and Because He Lives are given Mumford beats and guitars (played by the great Mac McAnally), Victory in Jesus is presented as an old country shuffle, and both O How I Love Jesus and How Great Thou Art, in the middle of the album, put echo on Carrie’s voice. The latter has a key change and is the best track on the album. I predict a viral hit for that one, perhaps even a top 10 smash. Ditto Amazing Grace, where guitar, voice and Buddy Greene’s harmonica intersect and then a kids’ choir of wretches join in for the last chorus.
Carrie literally takes us to church with her once-in-a-generation voice. The production, which glows throughout, is sometimes more drum-heavy than, say, a Reba McEntire or Alan Jackson gospel album was in the 1990s, since pop production has moved into the 21st Century. This is a proper digital era album, in the style of Josh Groban.
Perhaps Amy Grant is the main influence here, and she can’t go on forever.
Megan O’Neill topped this season’s UK Country Top 40 thanks to tracks which have been dripped to fans during the last year or so. Megan is set to tour the UK and Ireland in October, trotting around the UK and playing King Tuts in Glasgow, Birmingham Glee Club and The Lexington in London (if it remains open after a very challenging year).
I caught her live when she launched her last album Ghost of You back in 2018, and I’ve also seen her entertain tourists and lunch-eaters in London Bridge. She told BBC Radio Ulster that her personal life overtook her musical life and, given that she couldn’t control what she couldn’t control, she leaned into it. ‘This acceptance that life is always going to change’ dominates the subject matter of the album. She also played her cover of Time in a Bottle on the RTE discussion show, the Irish equivalent of the Jonathan Ross or Graham Norton show. It takes its place as a sort of bonus track on this concept album about place, love and doubt.
I first heard Megan play Rootless (‘I’m running out of seasons to grow/ There must be a demon, I know’) at the British Country Music Festival 18 months ago. The song outlined her decision to move back to Ireland, having lived in Nashville and London; her life in a song. As I’ve written before, her song Ireland is her career song, the one that will finish every set she ever performs, an ode to the land she fell in love with only after leaving. That song contrasts with the piano-led London City: ‘You kept me crazy, you kept me blind…I won’t shed a tear for you’, on the one hand, and ‘you taught me how to be myself’ on the other.
I loved Head Under Water, where Megan wishes ‘the ground would open up, swallow me whole’ instead of making a choice in a relationship, and Devil You Know, written with the great Jake Morrell. Megan’s old pal Ben Earle co-writes Strangers Before We Met, which opens with a set of tableaux – trains, cafes, bypassers, back-to-back in a bar – with a cello providing an ostinato. The chorus contains the words ‘I don’t know’, which pop up throughout the album which, lest we forget, is titled Getting Comfortable with Uncertainty.
Two songs are co-written with Kaity Rae: you can tell Sometimes I Learn is a Rae composition as it’s full of melancholy and melody (‘maybe I just gotta wait my turn’) with a xylophone used on the chorus; the poppy chorus of Break Hearts is at odds with the content of the lyric, where she and Joe Dunwell are infatuated with one another but are ‘afraid’ of ruining a friendship. I like the image of both of them having the other as a lockscreen photo, and the middle eight of a repeated line: ‘Would it be worth it?’
At that London gig, she played with duo The Dunwells, who produce the album and write several tracks including brooding, meditative opener Should’ve Known Better, where she takes responsibility and seeks to ‘be honest with myself’. Hitting the top of her range, she really pulls us in. Likewise on Underrated, her cry of ‘I’m not afraid to go it alone’ will chime with a lot of listeners.
The album ends, before Time in a Bottle, with Winter Sun, a majestic love song with some strings and many Megans harmonising around her lead vocal and piano. It sounds like Enya and it’s a rare moment of certainty on an album of doubt. Ireland have a superstar in Megan O’Neill, whose independent spirit is shining through on this album. I can’t wait to see her in the autumn.